Category Archives: Faculty Initiative

Domain of One’s Own Spring 2014 Faculty Initiative

“Lurking” at the Convergence Center

I’m on a special assignment this semester, and so I am doing a couple of things at my university that I wouldn’t ordinarily do. One is thinking strategically about what is distinctive about UMW. Call it “The Mary Washington Experience.” The other is lurking in our new Information and Technology Convergence Center, the ITCC. Because I’m hiding out here, I come and go pretty quietly, not talking to people most days. But there’s something I’ve noticed: the students are EVERYWHERE. Not so many at 8 am when I arrive, sure, but they’re here. More arrive all day long; today — mid-afternoon, mid-semester – the place was packed. They are here at five when I leave. They are here for more studying and socializing when I come in on weekends. I know the center’s head, Special Assistant for Teaching, Technology and Innovation Jeffrey McClurken, is less than thrilled when the student set their open cups of coffee on the new furniture, but it is a sign they’ve moved in and they made it their space.

Writing, speaking, and digital knowledge centers provide formal spaces for students to receive peer tutoring. But there are a variety of semi-private and public spaces for students to work, learn, teach and collaborate. Some play video games. Some just are there to hang or veg out. Some meet in groups of two or three to drink coffee and chat. Student organizations meet. But most of them are collaborating on papers or projects, practicing group presentations, studying for an exam, going over the material they’ve been learning,. And my favorite part: They’re TEACHING each other. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

Because, not only is it collaborative, interdisciplinary, and apparently great fun, it’s also VISIBLE.

Of course, this is not the first time students studied in groups or worked on projects together, or even taught each other. What’s new is that it’s in the open. Students leave their outlines, equations, notes, and musings on the white boards in the conference rooms and on the stand up opaque glass boards that are provided, with dry erase markers, for them to work on and move around in the open spaces. The first thing I love is that no one is embarrassed to be seen studying or working hard. The second thing I love is that it’s clearly not just the nerds or the tech heads who are reveling in this space. Because we can see them, it’s obvious that the students who come together are from many different parts of our university.

Community, collaborative, fun, exploratory and open: There could be no better advertisement for our university right now. It would make for a great photo op – except, it’s all real and spontaneous – nothing was staged, nobody had to prompt them to do this, it’s just emergent student culture.

Call it “The Mary Washington Experience.”

The Talk

I am finally getting around to blogging about some things that were heavily on my radar LAST semester, both because I ran out of time and also because I thought some perspective might make them easier to write about.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “The Talk.”

“The Talk” is the one I got – and one that I’m sure a lot of female academics got as young scholars. As far as I’m aware, though, no male academic I know ever got the “The Talk.”

Here’s where I got “The Talk.” I remember it very well. I was a third-year graduate student attending my first academic conference, the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association in Philadelphia, PA, in 1992. It’s a great organization of likely minded folks who study law and society issues interdisciplinarily. The conference is relatively small, and they have a graduate student professional development workshop that runs alongside it, which I was attending for the first time. I had met up with some like-minded feminist graduate students and junior faculty, and we had gone out to dinner.

We were swapping stories about teaching, bitching about surviving grad school, and generally just having a good time. I had worked as a TA for a few semesters, and was getting ready to teach my first course on my own. We were touching on various classroom issues. But then the conversation turned a little grim.

Just wait, said one woman. Just wait until you get your first student who explains why she hasn’t been coming to class and failing your exams: because she was raped several weeks ago, and it was by someone she knew, and the guy is too well known, too popular, too connected, to report it. In fact, she hasn’t really done anything about it, and is suffering in silence.

“Does that happen often?” I asked.

Of course. It happens all the time, they say. You know that. One in four, or one in five, or one in six — it doesn’t matter, the odds are pretty high. You know that. Sooner or later it will happen. And they come to us more, because we’re women, because we teach courses in gender studies, because we’re more approachable, because they know where to find a sympathetic ear.

I did know that. But I hadn’t yet thought about it as being part of my teaching role. For some reason, I hadn’t thought about it happening to my students.

“What do you do?” I said. “How do you handle it?”

That’s the kicker – although they did offer some strategies for what to do, and how to feel about it, they also made it clear that sometimes there’s not much a professor can do. You can listen, you can offer advice, you can suggest she go to the police anyway, you can suggest she get counseling, any number of things, but there’s a lot of powerless and anger in the situation. It happens, it happens a lot, and it also happens that nothing is done about it.

And then you get to wonder about every young women who DOESN’T come to you when she stops coming to class or starts failing exams for no clear reason.

I’m grateful to those women – I don’t remember who they were now, or what schools they were from. But I was prepared when it eventually did happen to me, and although I reeled from the experience, I wasn’t completely unprepared. Still I’m sad, reflecting on the events at the University of Virginia and news from other schools, that we must continue to have to have “the talk” with graduate students, and I wonder how many male graduate students — if any — now get to hear that talk.

Midstream reflection

My participation in the UMW Domain of One’s Own faculty initiative has come to a formal end today, a bit of reflection on the semester past (though midstream, since there’s still a lot of work to do here). I wanted the blog to showcase the work of myself and my colleagues that is what I call “intentional sociology.” I worked hard to try to get it to reflect that theme in a comprehensive way (much of that work I’ve done in the last two days after grades were in!).

It feels somewhere between what I think of as the 1.) Phil Cohen model ( where the focus is on a particular kind of research and a depository for information related to the popular and academic representation of family, but is not focused on the author per se, and 2.) what feels like a more on-line resume model. I wanted it to be comprehensive of everything I am doing, so I have included my c.v., information about intentional sociology and links; blogs on my courses (most are under development, some as hybrid courses), links to my research (including a sabbatical proposal on intentional communities) and other sociological links that I follow. Although I think I have managed to link my teaching, research, and other endeavors to the IS idea, it still feels a little jumbled although I think that’s technical issues related to formatting pages, etc. rather than the theme itself. Feedback appreciated!

If you build it?

I’m trying to muster up the to say something relatively intelligent (and hopefully Marxist) about the DoOO readings for today, but my feeble brain is still foggy from spring break and DST.

Instead, I think all I have right now are more questions. I’d like to believe it, for example, when the person introducing Bitcoin says, “When everybody has access to a global market, ideas flourish,” but I am not sure I believe that on the internet or off. Because, I think, I believe that the free market is the anathema to the idea of the free internet, at least in modern ideological terms, but perhaps my fuzzy brain is not helping me think clearly about this.

I do want to know, if Anil Dash thinks that the idea that user flexibility hurts growth is a fallacy, does that mean the opposite is true? Does user flexibility and control lead to a user experience complexity that helps growth? If it is false that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability, than the author must be at least suggesting that the opposite is true, right? But I am seeing neither how that works nor how you’d convince internet capitalists of that fact.

Maybe I am just in a hugely pessimistic mood this morning, which is not like me, and seems especially relevant, because quotes like “What the Internet is going to be in the future is what society makes it” seem to indicate almost we have the opportunity to create (sociologist might say “reify”) an Internet that is free and open merely by imaging it so (and acting as if were so, which is what the practices discussed imply to me). Conversely, a practice of thinking all doom and gloom about where this is going might that fulfill that level of prophecy. It all feels so hugely full of portent, and hell, that might be a fallacy as well.

Blogging while sick

Well, I enjoyed the piece about academics working while sick, in as much as that is currently EXACTLY WHAT I AM DOING.

But I was most focused on the Weller piece, trying to think about how a quantitative sociologist might graft her work onto the digital humanities model. Here’s what I came up with:

• building a digital collection of information for further study and analysis
creating a sample from a population for survey data responses

• creating appropriate tools for collection building,
Use survey monkey, Zarca, other ways of gathering responses or collating observations on line

• creating appropriate tools for the analysis and study of collections,
some of these things don’t exist;
but this would involve creating databases that are searchable or could allow one to generate simple
statistical analyses; could also be a way to search qualitative interviews or observations.

• using digital collections and analytical tools to generate new intellectual products, and
how could people then include their generated analyses

• creating authoring tools for these new intellectual products or in digital form
How should the results look on screen?
How do you make it possible for others to use your database smoothly?

I was doing this all along? pt. 2, or, what “open” means to a sociologist

Thinking about how open access differs in sociology than in the other discipline that dominate this arena. I indicated in my earlier post that I would prefer to make data open to all, but the first issue (sometimes different from history, etc.) is confidentiality promised by institutional review boards on interview, survey, or observational data. It’s not insurmountable, just takes some thinking about how to protect those rights that don’t have be thought about in the same ways for traditional research or even posted on a closed system like Canvas.

And, because I am a sociologist, I realize these questions of access are really questions about social class, education, and other demographic naughties that sociologists like to throw into the mix just to mess things up. What does “open” mean, exactly for those who have less access to the on line environment and little cultural capital to know what to do with it when they do get there? Even figuring how students deal with “information overload” or how they navigate through websites or determine which on-line information is worth using or not is highly classed, I think. An open system is pretty closed for those who don’t know what to do with it, and it actually might be even more insidious given its purported democratic nature.

I was doing this all along?

So… thinking about the personal learning network and reviewing my career at UMW (well, MWC when I started). I’ve always been interesting in thinking about how to shift the responsibility for learning on to the learner, so the concept of shifting the responsibility for organization of that learning as well doesn’t seem much further off to me. But then I realized I’ve kind of been doing this at time. I just didn’t realize I was doing this, and it didn’t work that well when I did try it (since I didn’t really have the structure).

For example, in my Social Problems class years ago I had every choose the same social issue to write about. In one section, students wanted to look at housing discrimination, so we divided Fredericksburg up and students drove around looking at various neighborhoods, writing ethnographies of what they saw and whom that encountered. Some even took pictures. These accounts, along with scholarly literature on housing discrimination, was “data” accessible to all students via Blackboard. In the second case the students did ethnographies through eight hours of volunteering at schools, Bragg Hill, and other after school programs. They could use any or all of the accounts, which varied in quality from student, in their final papers on the topic. I thought it was a pretty cool idea, but stopped doing it, in part because I stopped teaching Social Problems, and in part because it seemed so much work for so little pay off. I was the one doing all the uploading (of course I would do it differently now), and student papers did not reflect that they had spend as much time as they could have with the material. I do appreciate the comment that the student’s ability to take responsibility for learning in this way does “requires self awareness and time to mature” and that may have been part of the problem here.


I’ve been tweeting for a little over a year now, and initially I would merely repost Tweets from other people, mainly @jmcclurken about digital technology, MOOCs, and UMW issues, and @familyunequal and @TheSocyCinema about sociological issues. I did this largely because the topics interested me and as a way of saving links that I might return to later and read or use more thoroughly.

I refrain from using Twitter for person issues (that’s Facebook’s role for me) although some of those creep in once and a while. I’d like to use Twitter more for almost purely academic issues — meeting and Tweeting people in my field, finding out more about digital resources related to sociology. I’d also like to figure out how to use it more while teaching.

Two things I have just started doing. I’ve learned that @jmcclurken and other colleagues often use Twitter to keep notes and share with others what they are hearing at conferences. I thought that was pretty cool and will try it at my next conference.

Second, I Tweeted my thoughts during the Superbowl.  I assigned the students in my Popular Culture class to watch the Superbowl, and to prepare some remarks about who they were with, what they did, what people wore and ate, and especially what they thought about the commercials and the half time show. Then I watched the game (first half anyway) and tweeted as a way of collected my thoughts and related to things sociological. One of my students actually emailed me during the game about what to do, and I told her I was Tweeting so she could follow along. “I don’t Tweet,” she said. So much for that. But I did show the Tweets during class and we discussed my stream of consciousness as part of their other observations. It was pretty fun.


Ms. Meta: Blogging about Blogging

The idea of being system administrators of our own digital lives discussed in the Campbell and Chambers pieces holds such amazing promise.  What I want to know is, does it deliver? and the answer for me so far has been, not so much. I had space on a static website when I came to UMW in 1999. I posted my CV, course syllabi, and some personal information and pictures of my family.  I’ve had two previous blogging experiences — one personal and one professional. I like to blog; I like to write — I start out strong, but then eventually run out of time and steam and the blog suffers. The point of debragump was to blog about running, keep track of my progress and interesting (ahem…) insights, and also offer a place to encourage people to join me.  People liked to contribute where they had seen me all over town, also. I posted approximately once a month for several months, which died down to once a month, and then not at all for several years. (Of  course, it should also be noted that my running has lost steam over time — but no matter).

I also had a blog for my URES course, which was effective for the purpose (to store general information about the project, research archives, and a bibliography) but the students I was working with — who asked for the blog — didn’t post anything, and it remains now merely a repository, should anyone ever be interested in that project.

Likewise I started out strong with  Best of intentions! I really wanted to get the word out there, post examples of intentional sociology, try to get a movement going (maybe my expectations were too high…).  Life intervened: my husband had a stroke, and I found myself with no free time at all to blog (I did think about a stroke progress blog, for all those with questions — “Hey, look at the blog for updates!”, but I decided he might not appreciate that). Finally, I guess one can say that I run — rather ineptly — the UFC wiki.

The promise of blogging (and DoOO)  — and what I can do with it — also reminds me of learning how to use Qualitative Research data analysis software system (like Dedoose) in graduate school while writing my dissertation. Presumably the programs have improved over the years (I do statistical analysis right now), but in the past QRM involved reading through hundreds of pages and coding using color schemes, notes, etc. Some sociologists just literally cut and pasted strips of paper (or did the same within a WP program, which is what I did). It seemed such a process could be automated, but whenever I looked into a program it never seemed to reduce my workload any further, then what I was currently doing — looking for and marking patterns.  It was a different holding system for the same process, although it probably would have made searching for key words easier.

What does it bring me? Why is it worth the investment? The point is, others have the same questions, maybe our student do, maybe everyone does. We were asked to think about blogs we would model ourselves after — one example I love is Philip Cohen’s blog “Family Inequality.” He blogs daily about demographics and political arguments related to the family. It serves as both an objective reporting of sociological information and a political platform decrying the family value objectives of less scrupulous researchers. It’s also just a great place to go as a source of information.

To make this work for me, I’d have to blog every other day, probably, but I can barely manage to do what I need to do now — teach, run, manage my department, keep meals on the table, take my husband to his doctor visits. How do I find time to blog also? I have discrete chunks of time, and everything happens with an immediacy: what must be done right now (and NOT because I am a procrastinator.  I need that time to just noddle around and learn new things. But trying to find the time, even imagining trying to do this, makes my head hurt.